"The government of Iran's surveillance of its students is truly abysmal, really insidious," said an Iranian scholar at the University of Chicago.

"The reputation of SAVAK is so chilling that nothing really even needs to happen in order for that reputation to begin to work."

He said he had never seen such "total fear" as there was among Iranian students.

That same fear showed in the faces of Reza Zanjanifer and his wife as they sat in their cramped flat in Adams-Morgan.

For months, since the Iranian government canceled his scholarship in September, he had been living as an illegal alien in a deely foreign culture. His J-1 student visa was also canceled; he had no means of getting work; he was married. Most of all, he was afraid.

The Iranian secret police, SAVAK, had asked him to spy on his fellow students at George Washington University, and he had refused.

The shah has given American colleges and universities a total of $12 million in the past four years. Because of its shortage of technical manpower and the breadth of Iran's development programs, the Iranian government is concentrating on a major unannounced program to send students to the United States for advanced training, Iranian students here number somewhere between 22,000 and 50,000.

Although that makes them the largest foreign-student group in the country, no one seems to know exactly where they are. Accurate statistics do not seem to exist. The Iranian embassy says it does not know. The Immigration and Naturalization Service keeps no records, nor does the State Department - both referred inquiries to the Institute of International Education in New York, whose figures - complete only for 1975-76 - are based on a census troubled by "non-response."

Libraries, registrars, admissions and census people and institute researchers say simply that general totals are not broken down by university, state or region. Most individual institutions divulged their totals after reluctant delay. Howard University's admissions office said, "We don't give that kind of information out over the phone."

Yet one can piece together a general picture. The majority of Iranian students are in junior colleges, technical schools and undergraduate population of big universities.

Some large groups occur in rather unlikely places. The foreign student adviser of the University of Chicago spoke of a junior college in Kentucky that had "no Iranian students three years ago and suddenly got 300 of them."

In Washington-area universities, the growth has also been astonishing. In 1968, for example, American University had only three students from Iran; today it has more than 300. At George Washington, the number went from 82 in the spring of 1974 to more than 400 by the spring of 1977.

"It's become a lucrative arrangement, just bringing bodies over here," said a professor at AU. Tuition-supported institutions have found a boom in the charges for foreign students, he said.

It has not been an unmixed blessing.

"The enormous number of Iranian students can change the sociology of an entire university," an Iranian professor at GW said.

An Iranian professor at American University said that the Mary Graden Center, a student cafeteria, "looks like a university in Tehran, there are such large numbers of Iranian students there now."

"Is it advisable, really, to have this many foreign students here?" he asked.

University administrators point to a number of housing, language and cultural problems. Officials call it a "major sociological problem" to relocate anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 Iranian students every year.

"The culture they enter is deeply, deeply foreign to them," said an American University faculty member, adding that with the continuing influx of such huge numbers, he could foresee universities in the United States "which would become essentially Iranian universities."

When interviewed by CBS-TV investigative reporter Mike Wallace on the program "60 Minutes" in October, the shah admitted that he had placed agents to spy on the Iranian students in America.

SAVAK agents work here under bilateral agreement made in 1959, Iranian embassy sources said. It permits the CIA to work in Iran. The sources also said that the Bagdhad Pact of 1955 authorized the exchange of intelligence agents among its signatories "for defensive purposes."

In Iran, unlike America, politics and education are not distinct. An Iranian spokesman said: "First of all, it must be understood that freedom of the individual is not an absolute right, but must be consistent with the public interest." To Iran, loyalty to the state is a condition of education.

American universities are quick to maintain that they would never accept endowments or agreements from a foreign government that would infringe upon freedom of thought.

A professor at AU disagreed: "It's naive to think that there won't be strings attached - there will be, but they won't be written down." The university, he said, will be required to learn how to "act on half-words, to learn what is required of it before the requirement is actually stated."

If there was one thing Zanjanifer feared, it was being thought "political" by his embassy. He avoided any discussion groups but one: Every Monday at the GW's Marvin Student Center, a group of Iranian students got together for informal discussions about the history of their country. Zanjanifer is convinced that an informer in the group sized his views up as leftist. His grades were excellent, a 3.4 average out of a possible 4, so it seemed silly to sorry.

But then came his first and last political demonstration.

In March 1976, between 100 and 150 Iranian students gathered at 16th and Harvard Streets NW for a march on the embassy of the sultanate of Oman. The student group set off, their faces hidden behind dark masks. They walked in a long, shuffling procession, some shouting at the top of their voices. In front of the Oman embassy, tired and very hot. Zanjanifer loosened his mask a minute to get a breath of air.A plump South Asian man took his picture.

In July, Zanjanifer got a not from his embassy that simply said to get in touch with them. It did not say why. Zanjanifer did not go.He did not thing it was serious and was busy taking exams.

On Aug. 17, according to GW files, Fatola Samiy, counselor for educational affairs at the Iranian embassy, wrote to Philip D. Grub, Ayramehr professor of multinational management, a shah-endwoed chair; a special assistant to the university president and Zanjanifer's faculty adviser.

Samiy said that on instructions of authorities in Tehran, Zanjanifer's scholarship was being canceled. Since the embassy lacked Zanjanifer's current address, would Prof. Grub notify Zanjanifer of the cancelation? Grub did so Aug. 19, and also notified the university's student accounts section.

"The embassy had my current address," insists Zanjanifer. "They were mailing my quarterly scholarship checks to that address."

Greatly alarmed, Zanjanifer wrote to Grub of his "continuing quest for knowledge" and his "loyalty to the shah." Then he went to the embassy to inquire about the matter. He talked to Samiy, who told him he would look into it, Zanjanifer says.

In late August or early September the phone rang one afternoon in Zanjanifer's flat. According to the ex-student, an unidentified male voice said:

"You've been writing a lot of letters to different people in order to be forgiven. You've been saying you've done nothing, but we know you've done a lot - we have documents.

"Now we have a suggestion for your future, and it's to your benefit to accept it. If you want to be forgiven write in detail and names of your friends, any meetings you may have gone to, the people you saw there . . . " The caller said he would call back within a few days.

Following the caller's directions, Zanjanifer sent a long letter to the Iranian counsul's office in New York, marked for the attention of Mansur Rafizadegh a member of Iran's U.N. delegation. Widely alleged to be the top SAVAK officer in the United States, he is presently residing in Washington, D.C.

A few days later the phone rang again. The anonymous voice was angry: "You have written bull. This is all childish. You have lost your future and your family. Think it over."

SAVAK then made it plain. Zanjanifer says, just what it would cost him to have his scholarship reinstated - he must go to work for SAVAK, infiltraet student groups at GW and spy on them for the embassy.

SAVAK asked him two or three times, a final pitch coming in late October, he says. Some time during October, Zanjanifer received a letter from Grub, who promised to intercede. On Nov. 10, 1976, on GW letterhead, Zanjanifer received the following letter from Prof. Grub, which senior university officials would later describe as "inexplicable."

"During my recent visit to Tehran I took your case up . . . I asked for reinstatement of your fellowship. I referred to Dr. Samily. Both [persons the writer talked to] were in concurrence that your fellowship should be reinstated. You should work out the procedures with Dr. Samily.

"I am confident that your efforts in the program and your work upon your return to Iran will justify the implicit faith all of us have in you. I am also confident that your contribution to Iran will be very positive as you progress in your career.

"Yours sincerely."

A week after Grub's letter, the minister of education visited from Tehran and Samily was unavailable because he was escorting the minister. When Zanjanifer finally met him, Samily simply shook his head. Zanjanifer mentioned Grub's letter but quoted Samily as saying: "There is no hope for you."

Grub confirmed the information we had received about his activities. He said, "I sent a memo on September 2 to . . . student accounts saying please rescind my earlier memo and allow Zanjanifer to register as his status is being reconsidered by the embassy.

"I told Zanjanifer I was working on this. We had meetings two or three times before the cancellation took effect.

Grub said the scholarship was canceled because the Iranian embassy had received a report that Zanjanifer had said he was not going to return to Iran when he completed his education. "Here the government was forking over $450 a month, and Zanjanifer was going to violate his agreement," said Grub. "People got wind of the work he was going to take his money and blow. To what degree it was investigated. I don't know."

Grub maintains that it was "my responsibility to inform him his scholarship had been curtailed.

"In fact," said Grub. "I told him I would intercede for him in Tehran. I took his case up with two Cabinet-level officials in the ministry of Science and Higher Education. . . .

"Zanjanifer had given me his word and I had checked with some of the other students. In a discreet way, of course, to see if we had a student who was telling the truth or pulling a fast one."

Because of problems like Zanjanifer's, there is growing feeling among GW officials that "It would perhaps be better if Iranian students were educated in their own country," according to a high university source.

The source also blamed university policies, however, saying that universities had become so "embogged" in business transactions that they have forgotten their original purpose.

Another faculty member recalled that 100 American college presidents visited Tehran during 1974, adding: "It was like arms sales. No one was waiting for the shah to say 'This is what I want' - they were there to tell him, 'This is what you need.'"

Told of the criticism, GW President Lloyd Elliot said: "I'm sure you understand that at the time, we, as s country, were interested in improving our relationship with Mideast countries," adding, "We didn't foresee these political problems."

In 1974, GW awarded the shah an honorary degree. Shortly thereafter Iran donated $1 million to establish the Ayramehr Chair of Multinational Management. Upon a recommendation of Dean Page of GW's school of business, the chair was given to Grub, then senior professor at the school of business.

"From documents I've seen, like resumes and things, Dr. Grub was going to Iran for a long time before this chair thing, perhaps as a consultant," said Grub's secretary in the Iranian program Zanjanifer took part in.

President Elliot noted that Grub had been "heavily involved" in previous university proposals on projects with Iran.

University officials insist, however, that a faculty member's duties in advising a foreign student program are very limited.

"We only certify that the student is enrolled and that he's completing his work satisfactorily," said Vice President Fred Narramore of the comptroller's office. "Everything else is between the student and his government."

The administration of GW says it is at a loss to account for Grub's actions.

"We would certainly never notify a student directly about his scholarhip being canceled or deal directly with foreign authorities about his status," said Elliot.

Meanwhile Reza Zanjanifer is waiting for U.S. authorities to either allow him to stay in the United States as an "undue hardship case," or, if that fails, grant him political asylum.

Zanjanifer's father is a poor shopkeeper in Tehran, and the son fears that his parents could well go to prison.